Picture a golfer teeing off. They get into position, holding the club gingerly behind the ball. When they’re ready, they swing the club back behind them and then toward the ball. The club strikes the ball, flinging it into the air, across the green, while the golfer continues the swing in an incomplete circle so the club finishes in an arc on the other side of their body.
This action can be compared to a pianist hitting the keys of the piano with their fingers. Just as the golfer swings their club past the point of striking the ball, the pianist wants their fingers to continue pushing down on the key past the point of the hammer striking the string and producing the note. This type of response from the keys is known as after-touch, and it is one of the common areas to address when a technician works on a piano’s regulation.
Let’s revisit our golfer. Imagine that instead of continuing the swing past the ball, the club instead hit a brick wall. How jarring that would be! This is like a piano losing its after-touch. The player’s fingers may start to hurt or encounter the sensation that they’re getting stuck in mud. They can’t play with the finesse and responsiveness that are part of what makes playing enjoyable.
To regain after-touch, there are about 30 different adjustments per key that a technician can make. Each alteration can affect other parts, so the skilled technician knows how to do a sort of dance with the adjustments and complete the right ones in the right order to achieve the desired result. These changes need to be precisely and discriminately replicated so that all of the keys feel the same. Some of the adjustments that can be made are to the key height, the key dip and the whippens, which are the engine of the piano. The whippens catapult the hammer toward the string. Depending on the brand of piano, there are 4-5 different adjustments that can be made to the whippens.
Adjusting to improve after-touch can be a tedious process but can make the difference between a piano that is difficult to play and a piano that is a joy to play.
A basketball player unhappy with the bounce when dribbling a ball may adjust the amount of air in the ball. A trumpet player playing a series of fast staccato triplets may need to practice adjusting their air and tongue placement. A pianist playing the same note repeatedly in a piece may be slowed down by the piano’s regulation. The technician can address this issue by making adjustments to the backcheck or repetition spring.
Pianos used for performances often receive regular regulation services called touch-ups before concerts. This is where the technician checks every component on the keys and regulates each component in order. This keeps the piano in the desired regulation consistently and prevents or catches any issues before they become noticeable to the player.
Why regulate a piano?
Piano regulation is an important service and part of piano maintenance. A properly regulated piano maximizes the instrument's repetition, control, and power. As a piano ages, felts and parts wear out and result in wobbly keys, clicks, and thumps. Regulation can make the piano feel like new again.
A new or rebuilt piano is an investment and can only maintain its fine condition, value, and playability with regular tuning and regulation from a qualified and skilled technician. Just like a car needs routine services to run reliably and at peak performance, a piano needs the attention of an expert technician on a consistent basis to stay in optimal condition.